a Sermon for Epiphany 7A
Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Rebelling against Jesus
You’ve probably seen this phrase on a book cover or on a church sign. It reads:
“no perfect people allowed.”
Kind of catchy, isn’t it? We don’t want perfect. We don’t really want to be perfect, do we? The phrase also has a sly edge to it: if you are perfect, don’t be coming around here!
We laugh at this idea of perfection because it is such an impossibility. Perfect Christians. Oxymoron, right?
Except that Jesus tells us to be perfect.
And this marketing attempt—no perfect people—plays on a conviction that is not Jesus’s conviction. Perhaps it is John Calvin’s. That we are so far from perfect, that we are irredeemable; broken. Only Jesus can fix us.
So why then does Jesus command us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” if we are broken? If we cannot possibly be perfect? We’ll get there in a minute. First we have to deal with a command and three misunderstood analogies.
Jesus teaches how to really rebel
We know the law Jesus references at the outset: an eye for an eye. In fact, the substance of this whole section is familiar. We know “turning the other cheek” and “going the extra mile”. They’re common phrases. But before they were common, they were rebellious, dangerous teachings. But again I’m getting ahead of myself.
Remember, the command “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was not a command for retribution, but to limit retribution to only reciprocity. People were/are inclined, as Dinah’s brothers do in Genesis, to destroy a whole village in response to dishonor.
Nor was it license to repay depravity with a sick sort of vengeance, repaying evil with evil, violence with violence.
Jesus embraces the limiting spirit behind the law by further limiting how we react to that impulse to respond. Last week, we talked about retaliating in our cars for getting cut off or the chain of screaming. He is speaking to this very idea already. Now he says to not “resist an evil doer.” And we normally hear it as a choice between fight or flight—with an ultimatum to pick flight.
Then Jesus throws us by giving three examples of a third option.
The other cheek | When we first learn about turning the other cheek, we’re made to think it is some docile response to aggression. Don’t fight back; just take it we think it says. For someone to hit your right cheek, a right-handed person is striking you with the back of his hand. A dismissive strike. Abusive. Like owner to slave. Offering your other cheek declares that you are to be treated as an equal and you cannot be dismissed. And it reveals the aggressor for what he is.
Suing you for your coat | You are in a courtroom and someone is trying to gain ownership of your coat. Jesus says to give it to him. But how do you give it over? You walk over from your table to his table, you take the coat off of your body and you hand it over. They you say You want this? Here, take everything. You can’t take from me what GOD gives me.
The extra mile | You are a Jewish peasant and a Roman soldier rides up, throws his gear on you, threatens your life, and tells you to carry it for him. You do it, of course. But when he goes to take it back, you say “Nah. I can keep going.” And you do.
These aren’t stories about simply receiving abuse, putting up with violence and ridicule. They aren’t about spunk and go-get-’em-ness. They are about not bowing to the evil in the system, and more importantly, revealing it. Revealing the abuser for what he or she really is. They are examples of rebellion without bloodshed. They are sitting at lunch counters and riding at the front of the bus; striking and marching. This rebellion is not violent, but it is dangerous.
Christians are people who love
It is here that Jesus turns again. He tells us not to retaliate, but reveal abuse. Persevere. Then He says to love them. Pray for them.
Notice that Jesus does NOT say to have no enemies. He doesn’t say love everyone as brother. You can’t control the hate others have for you. People will hate you. Moments ago, he told his followers:
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
You will have enemies. Love them anyway.
Why? Because Christians love. Christians love as Christ loves. As GOD loves. As the Holy Spirit loves. Christians love. Christians don’t hate or retaliate. Christians don’t murder or lie or cheat or steal. Christians don’t break community or oppress minorities. Christians don’t deprive those in their community. Christians don’t do these things. Sometimes, though, we do. So, as Christians, we repent, we confess, we return. We reconcile.
This is what Jesus actually speaks to when He uses the word, “perfect”. Jesus does want us to be perfect Christians. We just get it all wrong.
Scott Hoezee writes:
In this context Jesus uses the word “perfect” the way you might refer to a “perfect tomato.” The sense of the word is that we need to be ripe, mature believers. We need a whole-hearted, whole-souled commitment to God’s creation and every person in it. We need, in short, the eyes of God–eyes that scan the horizon not first for what we can get out of life but what we can contribute to life for the shalom and flourishing joy of all.
The word, perfect may better mean quintessential. My buddy and I refer to our friend’s dog this way. He is medium-sized, friendly, compassionate, panty, droopy-eared. He is “Dog”. He even has a good name: Angus. Angus is the perfect dog.
We’re called to be perfect Christians. When someone sees us, they don’t see us as good or kind or thoughtful or generous or shrewd or intelligent or dutiful or strong or prayerful—they don’t see us at all. When someone sees us, we want them to see Christ. That we may be how Christ is revealed to the world.
Perfect doesn’t mean without fault (an impossible state of being), but to be truly like GOD. As God, who joined in our humanity, who challenged us to live thankful, joyful, creativity-full lives of justice and celebration.
We know that Perfect Christians examine their lives and seek GOD in their life and work. We will gather two weeks from Wednesday for a five-week series of fellowship, formation and worship, designed to help us examine and seek. You will certainly want to join us for this.
Perfect Christians also read the Bible so that we are able to hear GOD speak to us. This week, I sent an invitation to our email list to name how we can engage in a more active study of the Bible, offering opportunities for home study, regular small groups, and bigger events.
Jesus reminds us over and over that life isn’t merely about what we believe, but how we live. Not the destination, but the journey. Who we are as we journey.
In countless ways we are perfect. And in countless more we become perfect. A perfect that doesn’t reveal our character, but GOD’s.